CrySP Speaker Series on Privacy

This speaker series is made possible by an anonymous charitable donation in memory of cypherpunks and privacy advocates Len Sassaman, Hugh Daniel, Hal Finney, and Caspar Bowden.

View the list of past and upcoming speakers

Stuck on the Agenda—Lesson drawing from 'lawful access' issues in Canada

Christopher Parsons, University of Toronto

[Download (MP4)] [View on Youtube]

July 4, 2014 2:00pm, in DC 1304


Studies routinely show that Canadians are prolific users of digital communications services and concerned about their online privacy, and yet there has been a long history of legislative attempts to broaden state access to those digital communications by way of ‘lawful access’ legislation. Over the past decade a stable group of policy actors has coalesced to negotiate or resist government attempts to expand government surveillance when such attempts are seen as generally weakening Canadians’ expectations of privacy. In this talk I explore how and why government efforts to expand the Canadian state’s domestic surveillance capabilities long-remained ‘stuck’ on the federal legislative agenda, and argue that a specific series of conditions must be met for governments to successfully pass such legislation into law.

I begin by providing a history of the ‘lawful access’ legislation—which has remained on the Canadian federal policy agenda of over a decade—through the lens of agenda-setting. Despite political and media controversies surrounding this legislation, and vitriolic opposition to many of the proposed expansions of government surveillance powers, successive federal governments have found new ‘problems to solve’ to justify their repeated efforts to pass the legislation. As I will show using agenda-setting literatures, we can explain why these efforts to pass the Canadian legislation failed. With these failures in mind, I conclude by outlining some of the lessons that the stakeholders invested in similar issues can draw: what conditions must be met to successfully impede the passage of privacy-infringing legislation? How can resistance to privacy-invasive legislation be enhanced in the future? And what can be, and is, happening in the face of the most recent attempts to pass lawful access legislation, and how might these efforts ultimately affect the privacy afforded to Canadians’ digital communications?


Christopher Parsons received his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from the University of Guelph, and his Ph.D from the University of Victoria. He is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Citizen Lab, in the Munk School of Global Affairs with the University of Toronto. His research focuses on how privacy is affected by digitally mediated surveillance, and the normative implications that corporate and government surveillance has in (and on) contemporary Western political systems. In addition to publishing in academic journals and presses, he routinely presents findings to members of government and the media. He is also a Privacy by Design Ambassador and a Principal at Block G Privacy and Security Consulting.